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Susan L. v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

July 30, 2019

SUSAN L., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, [2] Defendant.

          ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ECF NOS. 14, 16

          MARY K. DIMKE, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 14, 16. The parties consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 7. The Court, having reviewed the administrative record and the parties' briefing, is fully informed. For the reasons discussed below, the Court denies Plaintiff's Motion, ECF No. 14, and grants Defendant's Motion, ECF No. 16.

         JURISDICTION

         The Court has jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A district court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The scope of review under § 405(g) is limited; the Commissioner's decision will be disturbed “only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error.” Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1158 (9th Cir. 2012). “Substantial evidence” means “relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. at 1159 (quotation and citation omitted). Stated differently, substantial evidence equates to “more than a mere scintilla[, ] but less than a preponderance.” Id. (quotation and citation omitted). In determining whether the standard has been satisfied, a reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole rather than searching for supporting evidence in isolation. Id.

         In reviewing a denial of benefits, a district court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). If the evidence in the record “is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, [the court] must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012). Further, a district court “may not reverse an ALJ's decision on account of an error that is harmless.” Id. An error is harmless “where it is inconsequential to the [ALJ's] ultimate nondisability determination.” Id. at 1115 (quotation and citation omitted). The party appealing the ALJ's decision generally bears the burden of establishing that it was harmed. Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 409-10 (2009).

         FIVE-STEP EVALUATION PROCESS

         A claimant must satisfy two conditions to be considered “disabled” within the meaning of the Social Security Act. First, the claimant must be “unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). Second, the claimant's impairment must be “of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work[, ] but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a claimant satisfies the above criteria. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v). At step one, the Commissioner considers the claimant's work activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity, ” the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b).

         If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the analysis proceeds to step two. At this step, the Commissioner considers the severity of the claimant's impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant suffers from “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [his or her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, ” the analysis proceeds to step three. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant's impairment does not satisfy this severity threshold, however, the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c).

         At step three, the Commissioner compares the claimant's impairment to severe impairments recognized by the Commissioner to be so severe as to preclude a person from engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If the impairment is as severe or more severe than one of the enumerated impairments, the Commissioner must find the claimant disabled and award benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d).

         If the severity of the claimant's impairment does not meet or exceed the severity of the enumerated impairments, the Commissioner must pause to assess the claimant's “residual functional capacity.” Residual functional capacity (RFC), defined generally as the claimant's ability to perform physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite his or her limitations, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1), is relevant to both the fourth and fifth steps of the analysis.

         At step four, the Commissioner considers whether, in view of the claimant's RFC, the claimant is capable of performing work that he or she has performed in the past (past relevant work). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant is capable of performing past relevant work, the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). If the claimant is incapable of performing such work, the analysis proceeds to step five.

         At step five, the Commissioner considers whether, in view of the claimant's RFC, the claimant is capable of performing other work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). In making this determination, the Commissioner must also consider vocational factors such as the claimant's age, education, and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If the claimant is capable of adjusting to other work, the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)(1). If the claimant is not capable of adjusting to other work, the analysis concludes with a finding that the claimant is disabled and is therefore entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)(1).

         The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four above. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). If the analysis proceeds to step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that (1) the claimant is capable of performing other work; and (2) such work “exists in significant numbers in the national economy.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c)(2); Beltran v. Astrue, 700 F.3d 386, 389 (9th Cir. 2012).

         ALJ'S FINDINGS

         On March 11, 2014, Plaintiff applied for Title II disability insurance benefits, alleging a disability onset date of February 15, 2007. Tr. 199-200. The application was denied initially, Tr. 141-43, and on reconsideration, Tr. 146-47. Plaintiff appeared at hearings before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on August 25, 2015, Tr. 73-97, and on November 5, 2015, Tr. 98-124. On December 23, 2015, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim. Tr. 54-72.

         At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of February 15, 2007 through her date last insured of September 30, 2012. Tr. 59. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, status post bilateral carpal tunnel releases in 2008 and 2009, and degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine. Tr. 59. At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. Tr. 60. The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work with the following limitations:

[Plaintiff] can occasionally climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; she can perform frequent, not constant, fine and gross manipulation.

         Tr. 60.

         At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as an office manager and a hotel clerk. Tr. 65. Although the ALJ found Plaintiff capable of performing past relevant work, the ALJ continued to step five and determined that, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, RFC, and testimony from a vocational expert, there were other jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, such as furniture rental consultant and counter clerk. Tr. 66. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from February 15, 2007, the alleged onset date, through September 30, 2012, the date last insured. Tr. 66.

         On May 23, 2017, the Appeals Council denied review, Tr. 41-45, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).

         ISSUES

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her disability income benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff raises the following issues for this Court's review:

1. Whether the ALJ fulfilled her duty to fully and fairly develop the record;
2. Whether the ALJ properly assessed Listing 1.02B at step three;
3. Whether the ALJ properly weighed the medical opinion evidence;
4. Whether the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff's symptom claims; and
5. Whether the ALJ properly considered lay witness ...

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